The food bank and disability power dynamics 2

A note from Brad: In today’s story, we’re going to look at the kind of uncomfortable situation where it’s a struggle to be a “good” advocate for your rights because there’s a risk of someone doing you harm with the power they have over you. If you’re ever in a position of power over someone—especially someone who’s in a group that faces discrimination—please keep in mind the responsibility that comes with your power. This can mean a responsibility not just to do what you think is right, but to actively figure out what’s right before you’re in a situation where you could inadvertently pressure someone into something that makes them wish they hadn’t run into you.

This morning I took Felix with me to the food bank. I think I took him last time we went in April, so I don’t think this was his first visit there. But he hasn’t been in a while.

I brought my wheelchair because you have to wait outside for a long time before being processed, and they only have a couple chairs. I arrived at about 7:50 and was number 11 in line. The place opens at 8:30.

Around 8:15, one of the people who runs the place came out to chat a bit with some of the people in line. It is such a weird power dynamic when I go to the food bank. I don’t want them to not give me the food I really need, so I feel unable to advocate for myself as much as I usually do.

So when the man came over to talk with me, I felt unable to tell him he couldn’t pet Felix. Normally I would not have let anyone pet Felix in this situation, but I just felt like it might hurt me if I didn’t let him pet. So he did. Without even asking.

Then a few minutes later, a woman came out to talk with me about how I would go in a different door than everyone else because my wheelchair is too wide to fit through the main entrance door. She said “I just need to make sure he has his vest on” in reference to Felix, and before I could formulate a response, she leaned over and saw Felix had a vest. I really wanted to say something about how vests aren’t required (an issue I’ve had before with this food bank), but the power dynamics were such that I worried she might deny me if I tried to educate her. So I meekly said nothing. I felt like a tool, not standing up for service dog rights and allowing her to continue thinking she could look for a vest. But I needed food… so I had to go with it. And of course, she pet Felix, too. Again, without asking. I just sat there with a smile frozen on my face wishing the interaction would end.

For more context, a lot of us with service dogs feel like our dog’s body is a part of our body. So petting without asking feels like more of an invasion than it might for pet dog owners. Just like it’s not great to have strangers feel entitled to touch your body (like when people are pregnant), it’s not great when people hinge their happiness on you letting them touch your dog.

Luckily things got better when I went inside. They counted my place in line and had me go in the other door out of order, then wait for the person who had been before me to go. Then I could go. So we were sitting next to the check-in desk while the first ten groups went through.

The guy who does check-in is very kind and respectful. There were a few young kids there with their parents, and some of them were curious about Felix. So I told them about how Felix has super-powers and knows when I’m about to get sick. They all thought that was amazing, and were very nicely asking me good questions and wanting to learn. They didn’t ask to pet him or try to. So I had a good time waiting my turn from then on out.

Felix got lots of compliments for his behavior. People couldn’t believe he was an 11-month-old puppy! They said he was amazingly behaved, even though all he was doing was just sitting quietly on my lap (I was afraid to put him on the ground and actually train him—again because of the power dynamics and not wanting them to think my dog wasn’t legit and trying to kick me out).

Eventually it was my turn, and I got checked in and everything. Then we headed to the van and waited our turn to get loaded up.

We got a lot of good stuff! We got three large containers of fresh cut fruit, several containers of fresh cut veggies, a ton of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, a fair amount of meat, a lot of really good chips, mango juice, and so on. We will be able to make a really good soup out of everything we got, plus have miscellaneous things to eat as well.

I am really happy that food pantries exist. There is a definite need for them. But I really think that with the weird power dynamics of these sorts of services that people NEED, that it’d be a lot less stigmatizing and let people feel a lot more in control of things if the government would just give people enough food stamps to actually get the food they want to eat without people feeling they have to humble themselves for it.

If you’ve never been to a food pantry before, you don’t understand how dependent you feel on the people running the food pantry. You feel like you have to suck up to them, you have to perform being “worthy”, and they have to like you in order to get help. I know that the people running these places don’t necessarily feel like we have to do those things, but the power dynamic is real.

It doesn’t matter if the people in power don’t think it makes sense to worry about these things. Fear, anxiety, and shame are common responses to needing help with your basic needs. This means that if those with power don’t want people on the other end to feel these effects of the power imbalance, they need to recognize the situation and take active steps so it’s harder for people to have the fear/anxiety/shame mindset.

When it comes to disability—whether it’s service dogs, wheelchairs, a hearing impairment, etc.—it’s a big help to educate yourself about what it’s like for people in that community. You’re not responsible for being perfect with everyone and everything, but trying here and there can make a big difference. Even reading a niche blog post every once in a while can prepare you to treat a disabled person more like a fellow human!

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2 thoughts on “The food bank and disability power dynamics

  • Kathy

    My friend on disability has had similar issues at food pantries with her service dog. During COVID, she was getting enough food stamps for groceries. Now she’s only getting 40% of what she got during COVID. The problem with food pantries if you have diabetes is that so much of the food they have (bread, fruit, rice, potatoes) have way too many carbs.